Indianapolis helped shape Terry McLaurin. He returns there as a star.

Wide receiver Terry McLaurin has been a leader for the Commanders during a turbulent time. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
11 min

In 1821, a group of men met at a riverside cabin near the center of a new state and picked a stretch of forest to become the capital. Over the next 200 years, Indianapolis grew and evolved with the fuels of the nation — railroads, manufacturing, logistics — and the Hoosiers built monuments to their culture, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Central Canal and the world’s largest children’s museum.

But for Terry McLaurin, a boy born in St. Vincent Women’s Hospital on Sept. 15, 1995, different things defined the city. His Indianapolis was his parents’ house on the northwest side of Pike Township and the Eastern Star Church on 30th Street. It was Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles downtown and Long’s Bakery doughnuts on the west side and the Castleton Square mall, where he would score discounts on sneakers from a friend who worked at Champs Sports. It was Section 340 at the RCA Dome and Section 540 at Lucas Oil Stadium. His family had Colts season tickets, and he watched Peyton Manning throw passes to his hero, Marvin Harrison, whose jersey McLaurin donned two Halloweens in a row.

McLaurin’s Indianapolis was all the football fields he dominated. He was first an elusive running back in an inner-city league run by the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church — “pretty much the ’hood,” McLaurin said. Then he was a deep-threat receiver at the “more middle class” New Augusta middle school. By the time he got to Cathedral, the private Catholic high school in a leafy enclave, McLaurin was a do-it-all offensive weapon who moonlighted as a ball-hawking defensive back.

“I feel like I saw all parts of Indianapolis,” McLaurin said, and that made him proud because he felt like so many people never saw Indianapolis at all.

On Sunday, when the Washington Commanders star receiver returns to Indianapolis for his first game against the Colts, he’ll walk back into Lucas Oil Stadium changed. The boy who used to hound his dad for pretzels from the concession stand has been replaced by a 27-year-old man with money and expectations. Yet one link between them is Indianapolis, which welcomed his grandparents and raised his mother and united his parents and imparted an identity upon their highly favored son. McLaurin, who has worked for every role he has ever had, feels a sense of kinship with his city.

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“You say you’re from Indianapolis, they’re like, ‘Indiana? What’s there?’ ” McLaurin said. “There’s a lot of cool people who are from Indianapolis. I think it’s a lot of people who are that underdog story. I mean, you may not be from one of these big states, but … you pick your lunch pail up, you go to work, you grind.

“I try to embody that.”

Learning to work

In the 1940s, for reasons that remain a mystery to McLaurin, a young couple named Raymond and Grace Webb moved from Mississippi to Indianapolis. They took local jobs — Raymond at Western Electric, Grace as a teacher’s aide in the public school system — and became active in the community, especially at Eastern Star Church. Together they had 11 children.

Years later, one of their daughters, also Grace, was shopping for a car when she met a salesman who had moved to town from North Carolina. His name was Terry McLaurin. In September 1995, Grace and Terry had their first child, a son, and named him Terry Jr.

Terry Sr., who played football at Chowan University and North Carolina A&T, put his son in the sport as soon as he could. Looking back, McLaurin said, he thinks his dad started him in the tough Tabernacle league with bigger, faster, stronger kids because he wanted to test him. Did his son really love the game? Could he compete?

Tabernacle was “where I first picked up a football, and I think there’s where I learned my toughness and the affinity that I have for football,” McLaurin said. “It started there because of the discipline. They didn’t treat you like boys. They were trying to grow you into being a young man and to be someone who was going to be successful in life. So you couldn’t be late for practice, or you going to run. You couldn’t jump offsides, or there was consequences. That structure and just those type of habits — I like that.”

In AAU basketball, McLaurin met another standout athlete named Dominique Booth. One of the first things Booth noticed about McLaurin — other than the lightning speed he seemed to have been born with — was his short shorts. It was the early 2000s, when the fashion was baggy clothes and sagging pants.

“But he always wore stuff in order to be a good athlete,” Booth said. “That’s what he cared about. He never really cared about what he looked like.”

In middle school at New Augusta, Booth and McLaurin became the stars of a highflying offense. Booth was the big-armed quarterback, McLaurin the downfield threat, and the Phoenix was nearly unstoppable. If McLaurin didn’t score a touchdown every game, Booth remembered, “he was going to be sad the whole next week.”

“We were putting up basketball numbers every game,” Booth said.

“We were like Peyton and Marvin dang near,” McLaurin added, laughing.

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But after eighth grade, Booth went to the local school, Pike, and McLaurin’s parents nudged him toward Cathedral, a college prep school known for its academics. “It wasn’t really my decision at first,” McLaurin once told the Indianapolis Star. That year, McLaurin gave up basketball, disliking the time commitment of AAU, and got cut from the freshman baseball team. Only football was left.

McLaurin happened to have Rick Streiff, the Fighting Irish varsity football coach, as his freshman geography teacher. Streiff remembered he didn’t think much of the “little bitty guy” who was maybe 5-foot-5 and 145 pounds.

But over the next two years, with dedication to the weight room and a growth spurt, Streiff began to notice McLaurin. The receiver was precise and consistent and so, so fast. Near the end of sophomore year, a player got injured and Streiff called up McLaurin to varsity. In his first game McLaurin returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and in his second he hauled in a deep pass for a winning score.

The next season, McLaurin excelled as a full-time starter. But it’s difficult to gauge a player’s true talent until he’s on the biggest stage, said Kyle Neddenriep, a longtime high school sports reporter for the Indianapolis Star. In Indiana, the tradition is to play the state championship games at Lucas Oil Stadium on the Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. The games are televised, the lights and the turf create an aura, and “everyone’s watching,” Neddenriep said.

In 2012, no one shined brighter than McLaurin. In the championship game against Mishawaka, McLaurin set a Class 4A record for the longest touchdown reception (79 yards) and the longest punt-return touchdown (66 yards).

“I covered some good players, but his speed was something I hadn’t seen,” Neddenriep said. “It was electric. Anytime he touched the ball, it was like, ‘This guy could house it.’ … That [championship game is] what set him up for the following year to be kind of the name everybody knew.”

McLaurin’s senior year was a coronation. Cathedral won its fourth consecutive state title. He won Indiana’s Mr. Football award. He famously worked hard enough between two camps at his dream school, Ohio State, to get a scholarship offer. And after graduation he did what few in his family had done since his grandparents arrived in Indianapolis decades earlier: He left.

Keeping it real

In 2014, McLaurin moved from his parents’ house to a dorm in Columbus, Ohio. One of his roommates understood the Midwest — Parris Campbell from Akron, Ohio — but another … did not. Curtis Samuel was a jabbering goofball from Brooklyn who had an accent and was fond of saying things such as, “I’m from New Yawk,” and “Ain’t nothin’ better than New Yawk City, ya know what I’m sayin’?

“He’s always talking about this Jamaican food,” McLaurin once told a reporter in Columbus. “Something they get down in Brooklyn, oxtails and all that stuff. I guess it’s something he eats down there. I haven’t really tried it. He really wants me to, but I’m used to the food up here.”

Whenever McLaurin went home, he liked to go to Maxine’s, a family-run soul food restaurant attached to a Citgo gas station downtown. McLaurin liked the restaurant’s “home feel” — cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews running it together — as well as the chicken and waffles with apple-cinnamon butter.

Austin Bonds, the general manager, is a sports fan and Indy native only a couple years older than McLaurin. He saw McLaurin go from a redshirt reserve to a special teams stalwart to a breakout receiver as a junior. He noticed that, as McLaurin’s star rose, he still walked in the same understated way, usually wearing a jogging suit.

“People wouldn’t even know who he was,” Bonds said. “He wasn’t super flashy or anything like that. He would just come in and order like normal.”

In 2018, McLaurin returned to Indianapolis as one of the Buckeyes’ top receivers for a second straight Big Ten championship game. Ohio State won again — McLaurin is 6-1 all-time at Lucas Oil Stadium — and he entered the draft. The scouting reports on McLaurin were, in retrospect, tepid; projected him as a “good backup with the potential to develop into [a] starter.”

During his senior year, McLaurin had been recruited by Buddy Baker, an NFL agent based in Indianapolis. Baker had represented other local prospects, including Joe Reitz and Jack Doyle, and one of his pitches to McLaurin was that he, unlike other agents, was ingrained in the community McLaurin loved. He lived in Fishers, a suburb about 20 minutes from McLaurin’s parents. Baker’s oldest daughter had gone to the same high school as Caitlin Winfrey, McLaurin’s longtime girlfriend.

“There’s some accountability, right?” Baker said. “I’m right here. Our office is based downtown. … There’s a lot of familiarity. There’s a lot of people we’re going to know that they know.”

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Since Washington drafted McLaurin in 2019, the mentality and work ethic he attributes to his upbringing have proved vital to his team. His leadership and sterling reputation have been especially important at a time of turmoil for the organization. This summer, when Washington signed him to a three-year, $69.6 million contract extension, Coach Ron Rivera acknowledged the receiver was valuable on the field and off as they tried “to get people to understand that we’re not in the past.”

This season, the Hoosiers watching from afar have seen a familiar McLaurin. One day in September, Streiff, the high school coach, saw a video on social media of McLaurin using his birthday to give away sneakers to underprivileged kids. “That’s been Terry since [he] was a freshman in my class,” he thought.

In late October, McLaurin scored his first touchdown in six weeks and had an especially fiery celebration on the sideline, surprising some of teammates. But Booth, his middle school quarterback, chuckled at how little had changed from their days as Peyton and Marvin.

“Of course he’s going to be hype,” he said. “I know Terry. He’s not going for not scoring.”

This week, as McLaurin wrangled about 70 tickets for friends and family, there was another player in the locker room who was looking forward to returning to Indianapolis, too. Samuel, his old roommate from Brooklyn and current teammate, had visited the city for the first time while playing for Carolina in 2019.

“I thought it was [going to be], like, country,” Samuel said. “But the downtown area’s a little cool. It’s pretty dope. They got a lot of restaurants and a lot of good food, so it was kind of surprising to me.”

After reminiscing this week about McLaurin’s storybook rise, Strieff took out his phone and tapped out a text.

“Take it easy on your home team this week. Good luck,” he wrote, adding a shamrock emoji, a nod to Cathedral.